Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Calling in the Cavalry

I won't lie, this was somewhat inspired by the post I made yesterday when talking about having a powerful NPC save the players, and that stealing the feeling of threat and urgency from a situation. There are other ways this can happen, and one of those ways is the arrival of the cavalry to help out and save the day. On the other hand though, having the cavalry arrive can be just what the doctor ordered for dramatic effect, and a temporary tension breaker before things escalate once again. So, let's take a look at some of the ways that cavalry can work in your game. For good, or for ill.

Like In The Movies
The movies have given the cavalry a bad rap. Sure, its been improved more recently with some movies, but that is more because of trope subversion than actually following any trope in particular. That trope by the way? The cavalry always involves 5 seconds too late. Sure, they get there. After the lone gunman has gone through and killed the big bad and all the bodyguards. After all the work has been done, leaving only the mop up. Usually you end with a shot of the hero walking out of the building, spent pistol dangling numbly from his fingers, and ready for his 'off into the sunlight' shot when a bunch of helicopters and army trucks show up with troops pouring out. "Where's the fight?" The foul mouthed sergeant will ask in his grizzly voice. "You missed it, I killed them all" responds the hero. Truly he is a man of legend, and we know this when the foul mouthed (and often black thanks to Apone) sergeant chews on his cigar and nods grimly.

So, what's wrong with this way of doing things for your game? Nothing actually. If you think about it, it does pretty much everything right. The cavalry shows up, meaning the PCs' allies pulled through and got help there. However, the NPCs don't steal the show or the spotlight, the PCs did it all on their own. Plus, they get to look like billy bad-ass when the foul mouthed, cigar chomping sergeant gives them the nod. However, this is also a dangerous way to run things. Unlike in the movies, your PCs don't have plot protection (or at least, may not). There is a base full of people coming after them, wound penalties will stack up, and often in games the bad guys react a bit more intelligently than in the movies. So while this can give the PCs the whole glory; it may also kill them dead. Just be warned about that.

Just in the Nick of Time
I think that is how that saying goes. If I misspelled it, please tell me so I can hide my shame. Anyhow, this is the other way the cavalry usually gets played out in movies. The trope subversion I mentioned yesterday. How does it work? Well, you see the main character has this plan. Call in the army, and have them take down the bad guys. It is a good plan. In fact, it is a great plan. Only, something happens then. The bad guys up their time scale, one of the army guys is a traitor, something happens and the main chars have to go in alone. So they're going in, and they're fighting and shooting, and everything is coming out all desperate. Than something goes wrong, someone gets shot (for example.) Next thing you know, the heroes are being surrounded and held at gun point, but what is that on the air? helicopter blades? Hello Air Cav! The cavalry shows up, the fight begins again, this time on much more even footing, and the heroes get through to get their man. Go Team Justice!

There is actually nothing wrong with this one either, but I will caution you not to set up for it. It can come across as forced when you try to force the tense situation onto the players. it comes across exactly as that, forced. Instead, play out the situation normally. If the PCs get into a particularly tough spot, have the cavalry arrive to help them out. Essentially, they get one get out of jail free card. After that, they're on their own, but the situation should be easier with all those other fighters on scene to tie up the enemy.

I like this way, as it gives me a second chance to give to the players. Better than that though, this is a second chance that the players set up themselves. They pre-arranged for the cavalry to show up, and that is why they get it as a reward. If they never need it, they get to look awesome and we do a standard "Cavalry arrives too late" scenario. Otherwise, the cavalry shows up and hauls their bacon out of the fire just that once. Even better, you can put some of the cavalry into dramatic situations and see how the players react. Do they go to save the guy who helped save them? Or let him die and continue on after the bad guy?

The Ride Along
This method isn't done very often in the movies, but essentially it means that the PCs are riding along with the cavalry. Both show up at the same time and make the assault together. It is something that doesn't necessarily add tension to a scene, but can add excitement to the game. There is just something about loading up into tanks, helicopters, star destroyers, and x-wings with a ton of people and assaulting a place that can get the excitement really flowing.

There really isn't much good or bad about this, depending on your execution. Keep the spot light on the players, remember that they're the stars, and play up the scope of the combat and people will have a good time. Over shadow the players with the cavalry, take away the fun, or bog the system down with the mechanical details and they may not. You are really going to want a way to handle mooks and other non-important (on both sides) NPCs quickly. Either some arbitrary way of handling it, or a snap on system (like Unsung Heroes over there on the left *shameless self plug*) that can quickly handle larger numbers of NPCs with quick rolls.

Other than that though, have fun with this. The players are bringing the thunder, so show them the thunder. Make it loud, quick, don't be afraid to just drop NPCs by the handfuls to show them what is going on. A fun one is to kill an NPC mid conversation with the players, and watching how the player reacts. I mean, you've seen the situations in dozens of movies, books, and video games. So put that to good use and make the scene shine.

Wrapping Up
Hopefully, if you weren't already, this gives you some of the basics for using the cavalry in your game. I honestly really like the first two being used in conjunction with each other. If the PCs set up for cavalry, have the cavalry only show if the PCs desperately need it. Then, they get rewarded for their preplanning, but if it is an unneeded caution, they can still be the super heroes for the scene.

There is more I could say on cavalry, and more I probably will in a future post, but for now I think that gives a good basic over view. So how about you? Any tips on how you handle the cavalry in your games? Do you have a preference to a certain way? Anyone manage to have the cavalry save the day while the PCs still get to be the guys who nab the big bad?


  1. My preference is usually "Like In the Movies". I've used that quite a bit. But lately, since I've been running essentially a galaxy-wide war I have used "The Ride Along" method. And honestly? That has been pretty fun. You're right about the 'gearing up' thing. There is just something cool about it that I and my players enjoy.

  2. Another solid post~

    I think the only real issue I have had from the idea of cavalry is when groups of players want to bring them in to have them take on the opposition for them. "Let's just call the cops and let them deal with it!"

    If the cops arrive and 'deal with it' the story for the characters will revolve around lunch and drink choices at their imaginary favourite bar. If I don't... well, all sorts of bizarre things might begin to happen - like players suspecting the entire police force of being in collusion with the evil cult...

    So, I tend to prefer the ride along, even if it adds complications and can sometimes reduce tension.

    PS: The silent K in the title of the 4th paragraph is also invisible, as you clearly suspected.

  3. Huh, I've been misspelling that my entire life. Thanks Rune!

    The PCs wanting the NPCs to handle things for them can be a problem, but at the same time you could also let it happen. Just, have there be bad things going along with it. The cops go, a lone, to deal with the bad guys. This results in 4 cops being shot, and the bad guy getting away. The bad guy is now hunting down whoever tipped the cops off to his location.

    If the PCs want to let the NPCs do the heavy lifting, show them that the NPCs can't do all of it. They're not PCs after all. :)

  4. Guilt can be a great motivator~ It worked wonders for Peter Parker! That is a good idea~

    Have you ever had a group look at you, once the 4 cops are dead, and the villain is once more wreaking havoc, and say, "You see!? That is why we didn't want to go!"